According to Wikipedia, “New Atheism” is the name given to the ideas promoted by a collection of 21st-century atheist writers (foremost among them: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens) who have advocated the view that “religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.”
During the March 2012 Toward the Quadrivium event, speaker, Mitch Stokes, made the statement, “The New Atheists do not only see belief in God as mistaken, they see it as dangerous.” While compiling the DVD recording of the event (available soon) a thought occurred to me.
It is weird that the New Atheists hate religion. Atheists (old and new) view religious people as gullible and prudish, but it should not make them “mad.” Their unbelief does not make me mad. I get mad when false gospels are taught by “Christian” writers and speakers, but, then again, I’m religious—I have a stake in it.
The New Atheists’ hatred of religion looks like a conundrum to me because despising an opposing belief system seems like an inherently religious thing to do. For myself, I despise materialism because it is in opposition to my religion; I despise progressivist politics because they are in opposition to the politics which my religion tells me are correct; I do not despise users of Windows (though I might despise using it myself) because my preference for Apple devices is a matter of practicality, not a religion. But the New Atheists despise Christianity with religious fervor. This seems a bit inconsistent (and if you’re an atheist reading this, then you’ll know that it is completely consistent for me to hate your beliefs—I’m a pre-enlightenment bigot).
More scholarly Christians than I have already argued that atheism is a religion, so I will be saying little new here. I only seek to respond briefly to quotes from some New Atheists (brought to my attention by Dr. Stokes) and show that they fit the definition of “religious” quite well.
“As you are reading these words, and as I am writing them, people of faith are, in their different ways, plotting our destruction. Religion poisons everything.”
Hitchens, Christopher. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. (1)
“Children, I’ll argue, have a human right not to have their minds crippled by exposure to other people’s bad ideas, no matter who these other people are. Parents, correspondingly, have no God-given license to enculturate their children in whatever ways they personally choose—no right to limit the horizons of their children’s knowledge, to bring them up in an atmosphere of dogma and superstition, or to insist that they follow the straight and narrow paths of their own faiths. In short, children have a right not to have their minds addled by nonsense, and we, as a society, have a duty to protect them from it.”
Humphrey, Nicholas. Oxford Amnesty Lecture, 1997. (2)
From these quotes, we are to gather that religion is characterized by
- a desire to destroy other systems of belief (in the quotation above, Hitchens’ in particular);
- confining a child’s horizons within certain views;
- dogma; and
- superstition (by which I assume he means belief in that which cannot be scientifically proven).
As a Christian, I agree that religion is, and should be, “all” of these things.
He posits that religious people are plotting atheists’ destruction and that “poisoning” things in this way is, definitively, what religious people do. So, 1) religion = poisoning, 2) poisoning = plotting the destruction of other people’s ideas. Ergo: religion = plotting the destruction of other people’s ideas. This claim would be sensible coming from a nonbeliever who casually pointed out perceived “faults” of religion. But Hitchens has led an internationally-renowned career trying to destroy it. Is he not mirroring what he himself claims is one of the most definitive characteristics of faith?
Nicholas Humphrey’s usage of the phrase “bad ideas” leads to two important questions: “Whose definition of bad?” and, “What is dogma?”
Many people have many different conceptions of what is “bad” – that is why there are more than one belief system. Parents limit the horizons of their children’s education to include the specific ideas they themselves believe are “good,” and to exclude those they think are “bad.” In Humphrey’s personal view, that which is “bad” is summed up by superstition and straight and narrow moralisms. Though he’s ostensibly arguing for a culture where children can think freely, he actually enumerates for us a list of the ideas he thinks are bad: the things that children should have excluded from the horizons of their knowledge. Though he talks about letting children think freely, what he’s really doing is agreeing with religious parents that a child’s upbringing ought to exclude the “bad” ideas – he just wants to replace their notion of what’s bad with his own.
The word for shaping your progeny’s ideas is “enculturation,” something Humphrey, oddly enough, argues against; he’s so against the idea of enculturation that he wants to enculturate other people’s children and create a culture that’s free of enculturation. And what better way, after all, to plot the destruction of someone else’s faith?
Dogma, according to the dictionary, is an incontrovertible principle. But as with the “bad,” there’s a good deal of, well, controversy about what the “incontrovertible” really is. I suggest that people usually use the word to mean “any idea that certain religious people believe to be incontrovertible.” To be dogmatic means to believe that your standards are incontrovertible – to belive that they apply to all people everywhere, whether they believe it or not. This is how Christians think, by the way, if they are good ones, but New Atheists use “dogmatic” as a bad word. Ironically Mr. Humphrey, in saying that children should be protected from bad ideas, is making the dogmatic claim that, first, there is such a thing as a bad idea, and, furthermore, that those ideas which he deems bad really are. I might say, and loudly, that PCs are bad computers, but I don’t mean that kind of “bad” – I’m not dogmatic about computers. Humphrey has ideas that he thinks all people should recognize. He wants children to be free from other people’s dogmas. And I feel I should say that I’m not preaching against all this dogmaticism – just saying that it’s inconsistent for him to say he doesn’t have any.
Touching for a moment on the more sinister implications of this quote, I wonder if Mr. Humphrey would set a child free to choose Christianity. After all, he thinks society has a duty to protect children from the wrong ideas.
Thus far the New Atheists fit three parts of their own definition of religion. They want to destroy other belief systems, to limit children’s knowledge from that which they view to be false, and to have a monopoly on dogma. As to superstition, I think I can do without arguing about it. I thought about arguing that they were superstitious – but that seemed like a whole other article, and “superstitious” is really just one of those words you use when you want someone to shut up anyway.
But I realize that it’s a bit unfair to construct a case based only on two spurious quotations, and pry open only the chinks they happened to contain. To that end, I plan on examining some dictionary definitions next week <read Part 2 here>.
I think probably the strangest thing about the New Atheistic hatred for religion is that they have their most basic goal in common with religion: paideia – those things which we wish to see posterity continue believing in after us. One might well ask an atheist why he cares what people believe after he’s dead. He might answer “because it’s true,” and he would have said far more than he realized. That which is True outlives us because it transcends us, and it therefor matters far more than our individual lives. Pursuing that which is True and Transcendent, at the expense of that which is Present, is religious. Apologists like Hitchens have devoted their lives to a vision beyond themselves, beyond the present – a vision they will not live to see come true. I dare say they don’t mind, any more than we do about our goals. I may be giving them too much credit, but I suspect that, given the scenario, they would opt to face lions rather than live under a Christian emperor.
I have a theory about where the acid hatred in quotations like these comes from. I think the atheists realize in some unconscious way that in order to destroy religion, they must take on more and more of the attributes of faith – conviction, dogmaticism, and the drive to convert – and that therefore, though they convert the entire world to atheism, religion would not even then be dead. Like one of Flannery O’Connor’s protagonists, the harder they fight it, the more they become conformed, and it must be intensely frustrating.